Kozuka leads Japanese men's medal sweep at Skate America
Canadians Weaver & Poje 2nd after ice dance short program
Takahiko Kozuka overtook 17-year-old Yuzuru Hanyu to win the men's title Saturday at Skate America in Kent, Wash., as Japan swept the top three spots.
Kozuka won with 251.44 points, Hanyu had 243.74 and Tatsuki Machida 225.95.
Hanyu fell three times during his long program to lose the nearly 10-point lead he had over Kozuka after the short program when he skated flawlessly to set a world record at 95.07 points.
"Today's performance was very close to my worst," Hanyu said through a translator. "I haven't skated that bad even in practice."
Kozuka fell once, but still had the best long score at 166.12. Hanyu had 148.67.
"I think the level of Japanese men is very hard and very competitive," Kozuka said through a translator about the dominance of his country. "But this is just the beginning of the season and I want to keep on skating as good as I did the rest of the season."
American Jeremy Abbott placed fifth at 211.35. He fell twice and hung his head near tears at center ice after finishing his routine. He was third after the short program.
Russia's Konstantin Menshov was fourth at 212.53.
Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov displayed their sophisticated artistry to win the pairs competition with 195.07 points. The Russians were second in the last two world championships and last year's Grand Prix final. China's Qing Pang and Jian Tong were second at 185.16. They took silver in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
Americans Caydee Denney and John Coughlin were third at 178.22. They took fourth last year.
Wagner takes pressure in stride
On the women' side, Ashley Wagner knows there's a lot of pressure on her to help return American women to the top of the international scene.
But that wasn't the pressure Wagner was feeling before she delivered a solid performance to win the short program Saturday at Skate America.
"It was about getting my feet wet," the defending U.S. champion said. "I was a little rusty out there, but it's been seven months since my last real competition."
Wagner scored 60.61 points, putting her more than a 1.5 points ahead of Russia's Adelina Sotnikova going into Sunday's free skate.
And her score could have been even better, if not for a botched triple loop.
"The triple loop was not exactly the quality I was looking for and I'm so bummed because I think it's one of my strongest jumps," said Wagner, who is seeking her first Grand Prix title. "That was my first short program out under the spotlight and the crowd so I'm pleased with how it went.
"I was able to stay on my feet and put out something that was quality. I'm happy with the day."
Olympic silver medallists Meryl Davis and Charlie White took a big step toward their third straight Skate America title, easily winning the short dance. They scored 71.39 points with their strong display of artistry, technique and quality.
Canadians 'felt fantastic'
Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, both of Waterloo, Ont., were second at 65.79, followed by Russians Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev at 62.91.
"We felt fantastic," said Weaver. "We had a great practice session this morning, got on the ice for the competition, felt very comfortable and put on a great performance. We improved all our levels from our last competition, which was a huge goal here."
Two weeks ago, Weaver and Poje kicked-off their 2012-13 season winning the gold medal at the Ondrej Nepela Trophy in Slovakia.
"We got some great feedback in Slovakia on what we needed to improve," said Poje. "We were a lot less reserved today and we brought both the technique and the performance levels up."
Sotnikova wasn't quite as pleased as Wagner. The 16-year-old, who won the 2011 world junior title along with three of the last four Russian senior titles, popped her final jump. She finished with a score of 58.93.
"I'm not so happy with what I did today because I did not do what I wanted to do," Sotnikova said through a translator. "I popped the last jump and it's a jump that I usually never miss."
American Christina Gao was third at 56.63 followed by France's Mae Berenice Meite at 54.41. Russia's Alena Leonova, expected to challenge Wagner and Sotnikova for the title here, struggled mightily and is way down in ninth place.
Wagner is hoping to build on last year's breakthrough season. In addition to her U.S. title, she placed fourth at the world championships, the best finish for a U.S. woman since 2007. She also beat two-time world champion Mao Asada to win the Four Continents title.
But the stakes are higher this year, with the world championships in March serving as the qualifier for the Sochi Olympics. No U.S. woman has made the podium at worlds or the Olympics since 2006.
The Americans will need more than Wagner, which makes Gao's performance particularly encouraging. It was, by far, her best short program at an international event.
Maybe in any competition, Gao said.
"It's hard to compare programs because each is different," she said. "For this one, my jumps are a little different and my choreography is a bit different. It was definitely one of my better skates. I was pretty confident going into it and I just pretty much let each jump happen."
Gao said she lost some levels on her footwork and spins, but was "really happy with how I did."